Rupert Cornwell: Down trodden Detroit fights for its very soul

Out of America: How much worse can it get for a city, when a house is sold for $1, the mayor faces corruption charges, and even the T-shirts warn you off?

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What more indignity can a great American city take? Its main industry is falling apart; the mayor hailed just seven years ago as its saviour has turned into a national joke, facing a dozen felony charges. Now a house there has just sold for exactly $1, as much as a McDonald's cheeseburger, but only after a three-week wait for a buyer.

Readers will probably have already guessed the city is Detroit, whose very name is shorthand for the collapsing US car industry. Today, one in three of its inhabitants lives below the poverty line, while its population has fallen since 1950 by half, to barely 900,000. These days, even the dead are fleeing. The Detroit News reported last week that, for every 30 live people who leave, one corpse does too, as relatives scared of visiting cemeteries in crime-infested neighbourhoods have their loved ones moved to the safer, predominantly white, suburbs.

Has any great American city ever fallen so far, so fast? For, make no mistake, Detroit is still a great city. Go there, and you breathe history at every turn – even among the derelict factories, abandoned tenements and overgrown lots of its East Side, under remorseless conversion into a Pompeii of the industrial era.

Detroit is where America's manufacturing revolution blossomed, and where it may most spectacularly die. It was the focal point of huge migrations – of Europeans and then blacks, first in and then out – human flows that symbolised the huge changes in US society over the past century. Detroit wears the scars of race and riots, but also the crown of Motown music. The place is a byword for urban decay, but is home to wonderful museums. It is also one of America's great sports cities, with a heritage stretching from Joe Louis to the Detroit Red Wings, the dominant franchise of the National Hockey League.

The Wings ply their trade amid the boulevards and riverfront skyscrapers of well- groomed downtown Detroit. But the other Detroit is much larger, trapped in a vicious cycle of diminishing population and declining revenues, causing cuts in vital services that drive still more people away. This Detroit has a poverty rate of 28.5 per cent, the highest in the country, and the second highest foreclosure rate.

Thus the tale of the $1 house. Like much about Detroit, it is an extreme example of a national trend. The house was bought in November 2006 for $65,000. Then it was repossessed and left boarded up. Vandals stripped out everything. In January, desperate to unload large unpaid tax and utility bills, the bank that owned it lowered the price to $1,100. Still no takers, so it dropped the price again, to $1.

Eventually a local woman bought the property as an investment. The catch is that the new owner faces thousands of dollars in renovation costs, and the risk that the fittings will be instantly stolen.

Not all Detroit is that bad. Downtown has been reviving of late, with a couple of glitzy new stadiums for the city's major league baseball and football teams. Old warehouses have been converted into yuppy loft apartments. But a self-destructive quality can make the city its own worst enemy. Detroit demolished the old headquarters of Motown to make way for a parking lot for the February 2006 Super Bowl. Couldn't it have been turned into a museum? Cities are like people. Destroy your history and you destroy your soul.

In terms of sheer self-destructiveness, however, nothing matches the fall from grace of Kwame Kilpatrick, the youngest mayor in the city's history when he was elected in 2001 at the age of 31. "I stand before you as a son of Detroit," the charismatic Kilpatrick declared in a soaring inaugural address. The son, however, has proved prodigal in the extreme, featuring in an epic array of scandals, involving sex, graft, kickbacks, perjury, misconduct and, most recently, assault of a police officer. Last March Kilpatrick was charged on 12 felony counts. He was placed on bail, but violated the terms by travelling across the river to Windsor, Ontario.

Mr Kilpatrick spent a night in jail last week for his bail offence. The following day he appealed for his electronic tether to be removed to allow him to attend next week's Democratic convention. On Thursday a state judge lifted the ban, only for a federal judge to reinstate it. At the time of writing, it was unclear whether he would be able to go. One thing is certain: if he does go, he will be as welcome as Banquo's ghost.

Should it drag on, Detroit's political soap opera could mean big trouble for Barack Obama. The city, overwhelmingly Democratic, is the largest single centre of black votes in the country. But Mr Kilpatrick's antics have dented the local party's reputation.

Happily for the candidate, Mr Kilpatrick is soon likely to join tens of thousands of fellow Detroiters on the jobless rolls. The Michigan Chronicle called last week for his resignation. "We will not pander to the idea that the mayor's problems stem from racism," the paper wrote. "Detroit's image is being made a mockery of globally.... Detroit's future is bigger than the mayor."

The city council has already asked Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, to remove Mr Kilpatrick. But no change of mayor alone can save Detroit. When I first visited the city in 1993, I bought a T-shirt for my small son, with the legend, "Don't Mess with Me, I've Got Friends in Detroit". Even then, the city was in dire straits, but it still retained a whiff of the macho allure of yesteryear. Fifteen years on, a successor T-shirt reflects only despair. "Friends don't Let Friends Live in Detroit," it says. Even when your friend can pick up a house there for the equivalent of 55p.

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